A World of One

Posted on January 24, 2005 by Jenna

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Meredith talks to her boyfriend Chuck.

“How would I know if anyone else was really sentient?” she asks.

Chuck’s eyes grow cold. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Well,” Meredith says, “I mean, suppose I lived in a world of one, and everyone else was just a mechanical process, possessing no volition and no awareness. How would I know?”

“I’d tell you,” Chuck says.

“You would?”

“Of course. I’m incapable of concealing something as large as my own absence of consciousness. You would inevitably find out. We would fight. Then you’d dump me. No, up-front honesty would be the most rational course.”

“I suppose that’s true,” Meredith says.

“You sound uncertain. Don’t you trust me?”

“Of course.”

“Then let it be. Drop this. Don’t ever bring it up again.”


Meredith yawns. “I guess I’d better be getting to bed,” she says. So she does. Chuck makes some phone calls.

She doesn’t know what wakes her up. It might be the scraping and scrabbling of fingers at the window. It might be the light coming on in the outer room. It might be the low moaning from the Philosophy Department. But something wakes her.

“Who’s there?” she says.

There’s a rattling as a lamp is knocked over in the outer room. There is an apologetic voice with a French accent. “No one,” it says.

Meredith sits straight up. “What do you mean, no one?”

Zombie Derrida stands in the doorway of her bedroom. “I suppose I mean that your question presupposes the existence and distinctness of the self, whereas the truth is often more ambiguous.”

“Aren’t you a person?”

“I should better be referred to as ‘undead’, a word that I coined in cooperation with Gary Gygax. It refers to a creature to which one can reasonably attribute the accidentals of life, death, personhood, and inanimacy, but not reasonably decide between them—a creature who does not truly possess life or death but instead what we in philosophy call a ‘malevolent animating principle.'”

“As you say these things,” Meredith notes, “you are shuffling forward, and your mouth is gaping wide.”

“Communication is violence,” confesses Zombie Derrida.

Meredith sweeps to her feet. She grabs the flamethrower from beside her bed. She rises and points it dead at Zombie Derrida’s chest.

“Why do you have a flamethrower?” Zombie Derrida asks.

“I’m a modern girl,” says Meredith, and burns Derrida to a crisp. She turns to her window. She flips up the blinds. Zombie Kant and Zombie Hume whip back their fingers from the outside of the window, guiltily.

“What are you doing here?” she asks.

“Acting according to reason,” professes Zombie Kant.


“It is a categorical imperative that all people should have their brains eaten by philosophical zombies,” says Zombie Kant.

“You’re a philosophical zombie?”

Zombie Kant nods. “It’s because I’m just like the real Kant, only I’m not a person. And I like brains.”

“We were going to wait until you were dead to eat your brain,” says Zombie Hume. “But you were catching on.”

“So Chuck called us,” Kant summarizes.

“That sniveling little git!”

“We’re kind of the hit squad of the philosophical zombies. Because even driven by mindless and malevolent negative energy, we’re capable of executing complex plans.”

“It’s not that I can still think,” says Zombie Hume. “It’s more that the causal chain passing through me is unaware of the dark abyss that is my mind.”

“Whereas, for me,” says Kant, “it is more that I cannot see how being a zombie should affect my moral code.”

“This is monstrous,” says Meredith.

“You are averse to being devoured,” says Zombie Hume. “I appreciate this. Yet I desire to devour you. All is in balance.”

Meredith nods slowly. She opens the window. “I guess you’d best get on with it, then.”

Hume and Kant attempt to fit through the window simultaneously. They are briefly stuck. That is when Meredith burns them.

“Time to deal with Chuck,” she says.

She opens her front door. She goes out. There is a chill in the air and a hundred houses on every hill. In every house the philosophical zombies go through the motions of life, hoping that by so doing they will someday gain the chance to taste her brains; and yet she is alone.